Earlier this month BT and EE, which are more or less the same thing these days, announced that they had plans to launch commercial 5G services in the UK sometime before the end of next year. It was pretty surprising, since nobody expected the UK to get 5G before 2020, and now O2 has dismissed the whole notion. According to the rival network anything launched before 2020 won't be the full-fat 5G everyone expects.
The network confirmed to 5G.co.uk that it won't be rolling out any 5G services to customers before 2020, and that anyone who tries to launch before then won't be offering the real thing:
“It’s likely that there will be a lite version of 5G launched [in the UK] prior to 2020.
Any UK operator launching ‘5G’ before 2020 would be using a ‘lite version’ of 5G.”
“Everyone in the world (including O2 in the UK) is expected to deploy 5G using a ‘non-standalone’ architecture to start with but it’s the ‘standalone’ version which comes after that and will offer the complete 5G experience.
Effectively this means that a 5G launch before 2020 will lack certain capabilities (e.g. super low latency, vehicle communications for autonomous driving, enhanced security).”
The pre-2020 'lite' 5G is likely to be based on the Release 15 which is set to be published by the 5G standards body 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) in June. These releases introduce and outline different standards and specifications necessary for various 5G features, with the 16th expected to outline the full scale and capabilities of the network. Release 16 isn't set to be published until December 2019, so anything that comes before it couldn't possibly realise the full potential of what 5G has to offer.
It's not clear why BT/EE would make such a daring promise if it can't achieve the full potential of 5G, though being the first UK network to offer 5G deals would likely offer excellent marketing potential. While it's unlikely either company has nefarious motives, it's not unheard of for networks to use 5G as a buzzword to try and sound innovative. US network AT&T announced it was offering 5G services last year, but rather than being proper 5G it was simply using the term as a marketing tool for offering network speeds faster than traditional 4G.